After my husband died, I remember all the awkward moments when people avoided me – at my office, on the street and even friends who were uncomfortable talking about it. At times I felt like I had a disease, and in a sense I did – I had been impacted by death and my world had been blown apart. If anyone got too close to me, death and all its sorrow might rub against them, too.
It’s true we live in a grief-phobic society. This means we often don’t talk about death and grief until our own world breaks apart with the loss of someone we love. It’s something that happens to other people—until it happens to you.
If you’ve never experienced a shattering loss, you have no mental imprint for how to put the pieces back together. We aren’t born with this skill—it’s has to be learned and developed. So it’s understandable why we can become child-like in our grief. We feel overwhelmed, frightened, and unable to cope, much less be comforted.
I’m a psychotherapist who’s worked with many grievers. I know when faced with overwhelming grief, many people feel like they’re alone in what they’re experiencing. They often feel like they’re going crazy. That’s how I felt when my husband Jim died suddenly, in my arms, when I was only 36 years-old. Through my own devastating loss, and my professional experience, I’ve learned some essentials for any griever to know as they navigate the labyrinth of grief and loss.
Let People Help You:
Surround yourself with friends and family who will listen and be supportive. If someone offers to help, let them. If it’s an option, seek the services of a qualified therapist. It may take a few therapists to find the right fit for you, like any relationship. My therapist was crucial to my healing.
Suspended in The Fog:
Have you ever tried to drive through a thick fog on winding road? When we experience any kind of traumatic loss it feels like we’re in an alternate reality. Our bodies are in survival mode and the thinking part of our brain (the prefrontal cortex) shuts down. Our nervous system is hyper-aroused, we experience anxiety or panic attacks, our hearts race, and looping thoughts fill our minds as we try to integrate what has happened. It’s difficult to speak, to “see” through the fog induced by psychological shock.
Many times I walked into a room to do something and completely forgot why I was there. I started writing things down, because it felt like my brain couldn’t hold a thought longer than a minute. It’s hard to concentrate and think clearly. This feeling of being shrouded by heavy fog, of your head being filled with thick cotton, is normal. Your body is doing what it needs to do to help you survive. Your brain and body need time to catch up to reality. Give yourself the time you need.
Our Bodies Grieve Too:
When Jim died, I couldn’t eat for days, and then the only thing that appealed to me was cinnamon toast. When we experience a shock or traumatic event, our instinctive survival responses take over: the fight, flight, freeze response. This is why, in the midst of a crisis, we are unable to eat, or swallow, or we throw up. When our brains perceive danger it instructs the body to rid itself of anything not needed to survive. All energy is directed solely to survival—digestion slows down or stops and we even stop producing saliva.
It’s Okay to Be a Griever:
A client told me the story of picking up her friend’s mother from the airport who had travelled across country for the funeral of her adult daughter. It took them an hour to get her from the gate to her car because the mother, in deep grief, kept collapsing on the ground in the terminal.
There’s an expectation in our society to keep it together—to not make a scene, to keep the messiness private. I call this the “unwritten rules of grief.” These rules are to help others feel more comfortable with YOUR grief. But grief is messy. It’s okay to cry, and let it out. Don’t feel like you have to “be stoic” for others. Do what you need to do for you.
Grief Doesn’t Understand Time:
Many of us are familiar with the five stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. It’s important to remember that grief is not linear, and these phases, as I call them, are not an orderly progression. There is no timetable. We all grieve in our own way, in our own time. I went back and forth through these phases for years. Don’t let anyone tell you how to grieve.
It’s Not You, It’s Them:
Children will often do or say inappropriate or hurtful things because they haven’t learned etiquette yet. But adults will often do the same when responding to grief. It’s because they don’t know what to say and/or are uncomfortable with grief. They may even avoid you. Just remember, it’s about them, not you. If someone can’t be there for you in the way you need them to be, find someone who can.
Be Open to Signs From Your Loved One:
I have a friend whose father loved ladybugs. When she was in a photography session before her wedding, hundreds of ladybugs covered her white dress. She saw this as a beautiful sign from her deceased father—a way he told her he was there for her on her life journey. Everyone gets signs in a different way. Spirit lives on. The connected bond of love doesn’t end. Be open to signs though dreams, songs, scents, and in nature. Let small miracles help guide and comfort you as you adjust to a new reality. Beginning to heal and adjust to your new life doesn’t mean having to let go of the person you love.
The Importance of Rituals:
After Jim died, I kept all the cards and notes he’d given me in a blue box. When I was missing him, I would take this box down from the closet and read his words, feeling connected to his love. For a while, it became my ritual. Rituals offer comfort and a path to healing. Find whatever helps you feel connected to your loved one—be it visiting the cemetery, lighting a special candle, listening to music you both loved, carrying something special that reminds you of them.
Being in nature can remind us the importance that all living things are connected, and this feeling can help reduce anxiety. It can be soothing to simply get outside and breathe. Meditation helps calm your nervous system. Go for a walk in the park, on a trail, near a river or ocean if possible. If you can’t find a natural water source where you live, or you don’t want to leave the house, take a warm bath.
You’re Not Always Going to Feel This Way:
Remember that grieving doesn’t make you imperfect. It makes you human. As hard as it might be for you to believe right now, I want you to know: You will heal. You will not only survive, but you can thrive and find joy and meaning in your new life. This may not be the life you had before—but it is still your life to live—fully.
About Debbie Augenthaler, LMHC, NCC
Debbie is a psychotherapist in private practice in New York City, where she has specialized in trauma, grief, and loss. Her husband, Jim, died suddenly in her arms when she was only 36 years old. He had been healthy and vibrant – the doctors compared the probability of his death by heart attack to being struck by lightning. That lightning strike ended her life as she knew it and thus began the “baptism by fire” that brought her to her new future.
Debbie’s book, You Are Not Alone: A Heartfelt Guide for Grief, Healing, and Hope, is the book she wishes she’d had when she was grieving, and wishes she had now to offer clients experiencing life-altering losses. With the connection of a shared experience, Debbie guides the reader through grief to transformation and a new beginning.
Debbie has as Master’s Degree in Counseling for Mental Health and Wellness from New York University. She has completed a two year post graduate Advanced Trauma Studies program from the Institute of Contemporary Psychotherapy and is trained in various modalities that inform a holistically based practice including EMDR, Internal Family Systems, Sensorimotor Psychotherapy, Energy Psychology, and Hypnosis. In 2012 she received the NYU Steinhardt Award for Outstanding Clinical Service.
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